Author: Sidharth Bhatia
This year's biggest hit film so far has been Spiderman 3. In a
particularly grim scenario, wherein big blockbusters like Jhoom Barabar
Jhoom and 'Tara something something' have all miserably flopped, and film
producers are tearing their hair out trying to understand the mind of the
fickle audience, Spiderman has swung through the box-office with élan.
And it is not only the traditional urban, English-speaking audiences that
have given the film the thumbs up; Spiderman was dubbed in Indian
languages — Hindi, Telugu and Bhojpuri. It is the last version that has
done the best business. Unmindful of the film's foreign setting and
somewhat alien concepts — a boy who dresses up in funny clothes and
climbs walls — the audience happily took to the story of good versus evil
and the fight over a pretty girl.
In addition, there was the bonus of the clever dialogues, tweaked to
reflect the local culture. Peter Parker tells Mary Jane Watson in the
Bhojpuri version: "Jaan tum to Muzzaffarpur ki litchi ki tarah dikhto ho."
(You are as good as the litchi from Muzzaffarpur). Voiced by Ravi Kishen,
the biggest star of Bhojpuri cinema, how could the viewers in Bihar resist
it? The entire cost of the film's dubbing was said to be upwards of Rs one
crore; it probably earned several times that.
Distributors of foreign films are already eyeing the lucrative
possibilities; Harry Potter in Punjabi (Hari Putter), James Bond in Bengali
(Bond moshai) and Arnold Schwarznegger warning the villains in Marathi
about his impending return; the mind may boggle but there is gold in them
Is this yet another cultural invasion of our nation? Have we opened the
doors too far? Is this going to spell the end of the Indian film industry? On
the last question, our industrywallahs are quite sanguine, claiming that
'Bollywood' and its vernacular cousins are too strongly entrenched in the
psyche of the average Indian to feel threatened by Hollywood films.
Besides, a large percentage of films made in Mumbai, and perhaps
elsewhere too, are heavily 'inspired' by western and international cinema, so
by the time the original lands up, the audience has already seen the copy
and perhaps rejected it too.
But the culture question is worth pondering over. Is the dubbing of
Spiderman a success story for the producers or the triumph of Indian
culture? After all, the dialogues had to be 'Indianised,' a bit like
McDonald's foregoing beef and making a burger with aloo tikki for the
Indian market. Before we gloat, however, let us not forget that the revenues
end up in the pockets of American companies. So who wins?
Before we address that, let's see how the Indian film industry works. It
is no secret that the slicker producers of Hindi films have turned their
backs to the audiences in India's vast hinterland, a section that was once
called upcountry and contributed a sizable share of a film's revenues. Now,
with more and more films being made with urban themes and shot on
international locations, the audiences are mainly in the cities and among
NRI communities abroad. Who in remote Barabanki would really
emphathise with the characters of Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna or Page 3? In
any case, dollar revenues from the US, UK and Canada are far more
lucrative than petty cash from interior C class towns.
So, if Spiderman wants to try his luck in the hinterland, good luck to
him. We are quite happy with the rest of the world, our producers seem to
say. As for culture, aren't our films invading western societies? In this era
of globalisation, what is culture, after all? Just another commodity.
It is difficult to disagree with them. Narrow interpretations of culture and its
off-shoot, cultural nationalism often lead to prejudice and bigotry, as we
have seen often enough. We should welcome this cross-pollination and
rejoice at the entry of western ideas and creativity into every nook and
corner of our country.
Except that there is a problem. You don't have to be a chauvinist or a
hardcore swadeshi type to see that what we are getting, for the most part,
is the dregs of what the world has to offer. The fast foods we so love are
the staple diet of the lower economic strata elsewhere, the movies usually
commercial pap and the books, pulp fiction. All of these have their place in
life, but surely we also need high quality cinema and literature too. The
economics rarely add up to import such niche products and as we know,
the world is very interested in the vast Indian consumerist market. The
irony is that it is now impossible to buy really good contemporary literature
or poetry even in urban bookshops.
It is no use raging against the dying of the light; that is how the market
functions and as we are repeatedly told, the market is supreme. And
cultural snobbery, or horrors, elitism, is out of fashion. Let's look at the
bright side — at least we converted old Spidey into 'Makad manav.'
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